By Sheri Wren Haymore
In the most memorable stories, the protagonist gets what he desires against all odds. Despite evil forces, or society, or cataclysmic misunderstanding, or the gears sticking in the time machine—whatever the opposition, he overcomes the odds.
I propose that the most interesting characters are deeply flawed and become heroes in spite of their flaws and against all odds. In fact, it’s the protagonist’s imperfections, more than whatever admirable traits the author may bestow on him, that draw us into the story, make us curious to know how it’s all going to play out. We want to know how he’s going to overcome his flaws in order to reach his goal.
We want to believe in redemption.
So how does an author craft a flawed character without creating a caricature? Just as you get to know a friend the longer you do life with her, so your character will reveal herself by her dialogue, her actions, and especially her reactions to the events in her story. In fact, it’s when you, the writer, peel back her reactions that you get at her flaws. And when you unveil the ugliness of her flaws, then you can discover the story she really wants to tell.
Recently I read a novel that I liked in which the main character habitually wakes up hungover; so far, a flat character. A tragedy is revealed to explain his four-year binge; more dimension. As the story deepens and the guy reacts to events—with kindness, then cynicism, then inexplicable rage—now we get at the heart of his problem. He feels responsible for the tragedy. Guilt is one of the ugliest flaws of all, and it was up to that author to birth the character’s heroism out of that very flaw.
Allow me to use my own novel, A Higher Voice, as an example. I stitched together a likeable character in rock legend Britt Jordan—quirky and funny, creative and kind—and then I began to unravel him. Britt has a ragged past and more than a few secrets; no surprise for a rock star, but a particular dark memory torments him. He reacts to each new disaster with inordinate desperation to make things right. Here was my quandary: I liked this character too much. I had to walk away from the manuscript for a while before I could get up the nerve to do what I knew I must. Finally I ripped him open and penned such an appalling act of arrogance that he seems beyond redemption. In fact, a reader admitted that she closed the book when she learned how heinous his secret was. And yet it’s out of that arrogant flaw that the breathtaking humility of his heroism emerges and finds significance.
It takes guts to create a believable flawed character and then draw meaning from his story. But you’ve got this, fellow authors, and I look forward to your next stories!
Sheri Wren Haymore is the author of two novels so far, A Higher Voice and A Deeper Cut. Sheri grew up in Mt. Airy, NC, and still lives thereabouts with her husband and a pup named Cercie. Together, they've made a living running a couple of small business, and made a life doing the things they enjoy--traveling, hiking, camping, kayaking. Sheri loves music and yoga, inventing gourmet meals from random ingredients, laughing with friends, and most especially spending time with her daughter. A graduate of High Point University, she has burned more pages than most people will ever write, and is currently scribbling a third novel, which may or may not survive the flames. My social media links are http://www.sheriwrenhaymore.com/ http://www.facebook.com/sheriwrenhaymore http://www.twitter.com/sheriwrenauthor (@sheriwrenauthor)
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